Breast Cancer Awareness Month - "Business as usual"

posted by The Rabbit Hole
Monday, November 19, 2012 at 7:52am EST

Blogger Courtney Szto is a Master's Student studying the socio-cultural aspects of sport, physical activity and health (or as some call it Physical Cultural Studies). Bachelor's in Sport Management. Former tennis coach & ropes course facilitator.

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For people to finally rise up and object people have to know, they have to be aware of the magnitude of the lies they are being fed.  And the lies are comforting lies. People are not going to want to give up these lies.  They are comforting. Breast cancer awareness month is comforting.  Because you are doing something about something that scares you.  Breast cancer awareness month, despite the fact that it does not reflect any reality, works. Pink ribbon vacuum cleaners work.  Pink ribbon teddy bears sell. Pink ribbon yogurt also sells.  It works and as long as it works they are going to keep pushing it.  And it is tempting to say that they must be in a conspiracy but that's way too easy. I wish it were, because if it were a conspiracy then we could expose it and suddenly people would be aware.  But it's not.  It's business as usual.

Photo from Bliss Tree.
Last month was Breast Cancer Awareness Month.  A month where everything is pink and it seems that all corporate donations end up at the Susan G. Komen Foundation.  We run, walk, eat, and even shoot pink!  The third post that I wrote for this blog was on the politics of breast cancer and recently the documentary Pink Ribbons Inc., has been made available on youtube so I thought it would be a good time to revisit the issue.  The ultimate question that this documentary poses is what are we supporting? What does the Pink Ribbon promote and what/who does it hide?

Arguably, the original (commercial) reason for the pink ribbon was to raise awareness about breast cancer.  Fast forward to 2012 and I ask - do we still need an entire month to make us aware of breast cancer? Don't we all know that it exists?  According to Pink Ribbons Inc. and other websites Astra Zeneca, the multinational pharmaceutical corporation, was the founding sponsor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month.  That's right, not a grassroots support group of daughters or mothers affected by the disease but a drug company.  Sounds fishy doesn't it when a pharmaceutical company that profits from mammography screening and chemotherapy drugs such as Tamoxifen sponsors an entire month of 'awareness' that helps to pad its bottom line. It is a well thought out plan on Zeneca's part because they have both sides of the cycle covered. If you don't have breast cancer get a mammogram, and if you do you can use their drugs.  If McDonalds sponsored an Obesity Awareness Month I would hope people would scratch their heads and say "wait a minute..."

I think one of the most important points that this documentary highlights is how women with stage 4 breast cancer become lost amongst the shuffle of pink products and walk/runs. As one of the women featured in the film states, "there is no stage 5" because stage 4 is the end of the line for those with breast cancer.  Apparently, there are very few stage 4 breast cancer support groups especially in comparison to the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of breast cancer "survivors" who show up for the walk/run for a cure.  Another stage 4 breast cancer victim explains how insulting it is when pink campaigns put forth the message that if you try hard enough you can beat the disease.  Sure, if you are able to "defeat" breast cancer you are a survivor but what happens to those who are defeated by the disease? Did they not fight hard enough?  Were they not strong enough? It may not be a message that jumps out at most of us, but I think we can understand how someone who has a terminal sentence would look at a pink Avon campaign and resent the message of hope and survivorship because they are not included.  Those who are most fragile are forced to suffer alone and in silence when the disease that ails them is the most profitable and corporatized disease to date. In our meritocratic culture we commonly assume that effort is enough to solve all our problems, particularly where health is concerned, but it is an incomplete message and as this documentary illustrates effort and hope have not asked the right questions and have therefore failed to pinpoint any exact cause.

Interestingly, Nancy Brinker (CEO of the Komen Foundation) states in the film that the purpose of the pink ribbon is not to put a happy face on a horrible disease but to give hope because if people feel there is no hope then they will not participate long-term.  She contends that when leading from anger "you do not include or incent people to be part of a mission."  However, Dr. Samantha King, author of Pink Ribbons: Breast cancer and the politics of philanthropy, cogently argues that when we look back at history social movements such as the civil rights and feminist movements have always found a way to encompass both anger and hope.  So where is the angry side of the breast cancer movement? Where is the anger from the fact that we still do not know what causes breast cancer? Productive anger has been lost amongst Yoplait's pink lids, KFC's pink buckets of chicken, and pink teflon frying pans.  It is similar to how the anger of the feminist movement become lost when the Spice Girls exchanged the dirty word of feminism for the far more marketable term of "Girl Power".  Happy and spunky sells merchandise. Angry feminists and stage 4 breast cancer patients do not sell merchandise.

For all the money that has gone into breast cancer research, of which the Komen foundation itself has raised over $2 BILLION, very little has come of that money.  According to Dr. Mhel Kavanaugh-Lynch of the California Breast Cancer Research Program more than 50% of women diagnosed with breast cancer do not have any of the major known risk factors.  Yet, most of the research funding is not used to figure out what causes breast cancer in women.  We use the money to find a pharmaceutical cure or to perform a repeat study on breast cancer on middle-class, white women. Repeated and uncoordinated research.  Where is the environmental research? Where is the research on women of colour? Where is the research on young women?  If we look at diseases such as HIV/AIDS or type II diabetes we have figured out causes.  These diseases generally do not come out of nowhere and conduct surprise attacks but breast cancer continues to do so even after decades of research and billions of dollars.  Science can only explain 20-30% of breast cancer cases; therefore, the odds of a doctor knowing what caused your cancer is worse than the flip of a coin. It would be one thing to say that we have exhausted all of our avenues and that it's really a game of Russian Roulette but it would appear that we have only explored a few avenues because all of these corporate partners get in the way of more fruitful exploration.

I think these are important factors to keep in mind when supporting any cause.  Who becomes the face of the disease? Who is not? What is the point of the research? Who is funding the research/campaign/event?  No one is saying don't donate your money or don't run for a cure but what organizations like thinkbeforeyoupink.org and the Pink Ribbons Inc. documentary are really saying is make sure your money is going to where you want it to go.  A few weeks ago I wrote about the Livestrong Foundation and about how the majority of people assume that the money that Lance Armstrong raised went to cancer research when in fact Livestrong stopped funding cancer research in 2005.  It's the same issue with all the pink products.  Large corporations and foundations are banking on us the consumer having large and uncritical hearts.   It is time we make them accountable for our money and our health.

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